Discernment 101: How to separate fact from fiction

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Discernment 101: How to separate fact from fiction

October 31, 2023 -

In a row of five wooden blocks, four have red circled Xs, while a hand separates the lone block with a green circled checkmark. By Parradee/stock.adobe.com

In a row of five wooden blocks, four have red circled Xs, while a hand separates the lone block with a green circled checkmark. By Parradee/stock.adobe.com

In a row of five wooden blocks, four have red circled Xs, while a hand separates the lone block with a green circled checkmark. By Parradee/stock.adobe.com

Pontius Pilate asked a question two thousand years ago that Christians should be asking more often today.

“What is truth?” (John 18:38 NIV)

As Jesus stood before him, awaiting judgment, Pilate seemed more concerned with political expediency than the answer to his question. But today’s Christians need to be able to discern the truth in a world that becomes more perplexing by the day.

Separating fact from fiction—such as disinformation, conspiracy theories, and fake news—is harder than ever. But it’s essential if Christians want to speak truth to the world around them.

“Shouldn’t Christians, as followers of the man who called himself ‘the truth’ (John 14:6) and said ‘the truth will set you free’ (John 8:32), be leading the charge to recover truth and model wisdom in a post-truth age?” Brett McCracken asked in his book The Wisdom Pyramid.

Instead, we can’t agree on basic facts, like who won the last election or whether it’s safe to take a vaccine.

What’s true in a post-truth culture?

Abdu Murray, author of Saving Truth, wrote that we live in a “culture of confusion.”

The trend has become so pronounced in recent years that the Oxford Dictionaries named post-truth the word of the year in 2016. It means “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

The battle lines in this new era became more apparent than ever after Donald Trump became president in 2017. When Meet the Press moderator Chuck Todd accused press secretary Sean Spicer of spreading falsehoods about the size of the inaugural crowd, presidential advisor Kellyanne Conway said he was merely presenting “alternative facts.”

Todd quickly branded alternative facts as “falsehoods.” But when Conway appeared on Fox News the next day, Sean Hannity called them simply “a different perspective.”

Politicians making misleading statements is nothing new. President Bill Clinton, in explaining why he didn’t think he was lying when he told advisors that he was not having an affair with Monica Lewinsky, famously told a grand jury, “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.

The father of lies

The importance of distinguishing between truth and lies becomes clear in the first few pages of the Bible.

When Eve told the serpent that God had said she and Adam would die—become mortal—if they ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the serpent responded: “You will not certainly die. . . . For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:4–5 NIV).

Ever since then, the devil has used lies in spiritual warfare. Jesus said there is “no truth” in the devil: “When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44 NIV).

And that, John Mark Comer asserted in Live No Lies, leads us to a fundamental truth: “Jesus sees our primary war against the devil as a fight to believe truth over lies.”

But there are practical things we can do to avoid being duped.

How to avoid deception

1. Seek wisdom

We need to be rigorous in our fact-checking and compare different sources, liberal and conservative.

“Our world has more and more information, but less and less wisdom,” McCracken wrote. He advised, “Surround yourself with others who are wise.”

McCracken also created what he calls a “wisdom pyramid,” much like a food pyramid, with the healthiest choice in your media diet at the bottom and the least healthy one at the top.

At the bottom is the Bible, “the only infallible source of truth.” At the top are social media and the internet. When we see a sensational story on social media or the internet, we should try to confirm it with widely respected sources of information.

“One of the by-products of information’s glut and speed is that we are increasingly skeptical about its trustworthiness,” McCracken wrote. “There is so much bad information out there, so much that is false and fake and corrupted by bias. It’s no wonder we increasingly cope by seeing ourselves as the most trustworthy source. It’s no wonder ‘look within,’ ‘follow your heart,’ and ‘you do you’ are resonant phrases.”

2. Avoid quick judgment

If a fictitious story contains a kernel of truth, it becomes more believable. Most people are also prone to confirmation bias—the tendency to interpret information to support their existing beliefs.

Juli Slattery, a clinical psychologist and former co-host of Focus on the Family, recommended avoiding a rush to judgment.

“You will never meet a discerning person who is impulsive or always in a hurry,” she wrote. “Nor do we become more discerning while we are talking. Discernment requires the time and stillness to listen.”

3. Pursue truth, not victory

Experts also advise approaching conversations about controversial topics as opportunities to seek the truth, not win an argument.

In other words, don’t give in to polarized thinking.

“Even if you are on the virtuous side of facts and truth, [social] fragmentation is dangerous,” Lee McIntyre wrote in On Disinformation.

He continued, “Remember that the goal of a disinformation campaign is not merely to get you to doubt, but also to distrust anyone on the other side. When you get to a point where you think of the people who disagree with you as your enemy, the autocrat’s work is easier. In that environment, facts don’t matter.”

But the One who called himself “the truth” does.

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